My take on Michael Jackson—well the Michael Jacksons, there are a number of them—is that it interests me as a writer, as a critic, to write about people, experiences, artists, art, and cultural phenomena that arouse strong feelings in me and that often arouse competing [feelings]. It’s a little bit like what a novelist means when she or he will say, “The characters took over. I didn’t quite know what they were going to be doing.” That can happen when you are encountering a singer, a dancer, a novel, a movie, any kind of thing. The conversation between you and it takes over, and you don’t know how that collaboration will end up. Well, who is better for this than Michael Jackson?
I first wrote about him in 1984, partly because (like so many people here, I’m sure) I had been a big fan. I was 20 or 21 in 1969 when he and his brothers first had an album. They were adorable. He then turned out to be a major performing talent, one of popular cultures great entertainers. He will be remembered as an original dancer, a crack singer, and just one of these performers who has this incandescent self-containment.
When I approached him in the 80s, we were already—“we” meaning observers, fans, dissenters—engaged in questions like: “Who is he? What is going on?” You know, his skin was lightening, it was said he had a skin disease in which pigment changes, half the people in the world didn’t believe him, he was starting to feature some make-up, was feminized and yet engaged in this elaborate masculine crotch-crutching drama in his videos. So the first piece that I wrote was actually an attempt to challenge the tendency on all of our parts, including mine, to be very sociological. We wanted to say, “This is all about racial self-hatred. He’s probably gay, and he doesn’t want to admit it.” I just decided that I could not pretend that this was not unsettling. The fact is: this is a sophisticated artist who lives by borrowing, by appropriating, all sorts of styles. What’s that great line from “I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”… “How do you live? I steal.” And that’s what performing artists do all the time; Michael is a master at it.
And secondly, we’re living in the era of (and Michael was a little ahead of them): Madonna, who is being paid everyday for these capsulated self-transformations, and the artist Cindy Sherman, whose work I’m sure a lot of you know. She would photograph herself in all sorts of scenarios, insert herself in classical paintings. Let’s think about transformation itself: this remaking the self as art object. This is not completely satisfying to me. Madonna, whether you cared about her or not, always seemed completely in control of what she was saying and what she was doing. With Michael, there was this curtain, often, between what he said and what he did. You know: “Well, honestly, I just had two operations on my nose,” and you think, “this is not possible.” So there was still this child [in him] who would say, “No, this is just the way things are,” and there would be this adult who was rather relentlessly, and with a curious kind of stubborn valor, transforming himself before our eyes into something—something that he had to know many people were very rattled by—and he was going to do it anyway. So there was a mystery that intrigued me.
And finally, American mass culture since the 20s has been the most powerful in the world. That is terrifying and interesting. Michael Jackson for about 20 years was probably the most powerful entertainer in pop music. And pop music, along with movies, is the mass culture forum that is at the center of world culture. So this was formidable.
When I started talking about this with an editor, about five years ago, one crucial impulse was, “You know, he looks like he’s about to self-destruct in some way or another. What about a short book that gives him his dues as an artist, [a book] that reminds people of all the innovations, of what it still there on film, and puts him in context with many aspects of our culture? Let’s do that before he self-destructs.” Then a friend of mine said that as usual, Michael was ahead of us.
And then when I had gone on to do other things, the second round of sexual molestation charges came, and the editor called me and said, “Look I still want the book. We have to, obviously, take the trial and all of that into account.” That was now part of this cultural landscape, this fantasia, that includes fantasies and dramas of racial and gender transformation, sexualization of children—and by that I mean on several levels. Michael, sexualized from the age of five by American and by world culture, the sexualization of child stars: Michael is from that generation of Brooke Shields, Tatum O’Neil, Michael Jackson, little Jodie Foster, and the little perky children on TV, the Brady Bunch. There was a cultural obsession. And then there is our horror at the emergence of facts about the sexual abuse of children, and again, in that classic American popular cultural way, the way we turn it into a form of entertainment. I’m thinking particularly of a show I watch a lot, “Law and Order: Sexual Victims Unit.”All of that was very interesting to me, and the fact that he contained so much of entertainment history in his body; [his] videos, which really are short films, make their postmodern way through so many landscapes: horror films, old fashioned romances, Peter Pan, Edgar Allen Poe, all of that. You can find so many styles in his work. To me, he seems the end-product of one hundred years of our wildly complicated, ever-moving popular culture, made more and more complicated by the fact that it is now a 24-hour, 7 day a week, multi-media pastime obsession information industry. Oh, and of course our obsession with making ourselves over, from body dysmorphia, plastic surgery: he’s always there. We’re here with our obsession, and he’s already there or he’s about to be.
If you’re a fan of thought-provoking, politically charged documentaries, then Wednesday through Friday will be days you won’t want to miss.
“I’m a big admirer of Bill Kennedy,” said Gibney in a phone interview from his office in New York City. “He persuaded me to come up, and I’d do anything for him.”
Gibney laughed as he acknowledged how President Bush provided such fertile material these past eight years which allowed him to create many of his documentaries. “I hope Obama won’t provide as much material,” he said, “but I’m sure it will happen anyway.”
On Wednesday his film “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” will be screened and on Thursday “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary, will be shown. Both films will begin at 7:30 p.m. at Page Hall, 135 Western Avenue at the SUNY at Albany downtown campus.
On Friday Gibney will present a seminar on documentary filmmaking at 4:15 in the Science Library at the SUNY at Albany uptown campus, and at 7 p.m. at Page Hall his most recent film “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” will be shown. Gibney will answer questions and offer commentary immediately following the screening.
“Being a documentary filmmaker is a little like being an editorial cartoonist,” said Gibney. “You sort of depend on the meanness of strangers. With Bush gone, we’ll miss a lot of great material, but there’s still plenty of awful stuff going on right now. I don’t think I’ll be desperate for material.”
Gibney got the filmmaking bug when he was a student at Yale. “My father had been a journalist,” he said, “so I started Yale thinking I’d be a writer or a journalist of some kind, but I met some film people and got very excited.”
He ended up enrolling in the UCLA Film School after earning his bachelor’s degree from Yale. “It was reasonably natural to go from writing to film,” he said. “There’s a lot of storytelling in filmmaking. As a filmmaker, though, I’ve had to learn how to emphasize images for storytelling rather than turning a good phrase. I don’t have a particularly good eye for that because I was never trained how to do it. I’m still learning.”
When Gibney’s career started in film he worked on many fiction projects. “I was a fiction film editor,” he said. “I edited a number of movies and found that satisfying, but I jumped over to documentaries because I began to get frustrated with the quality of the pictures I was editing.”
He doesn’t believe that one is better than the other. “Some stories make more sense to do with actors,” said Gibney. “There was some footage in the Enron film with the electricity traders that’s so harsh, so unbelievably brutal, that if you put that in a script nobody would believe it. They’d say it was ridiculous, that nobody would ever say anything like that, but in a documentary it’s right there in front of you. You’re seeing the heart of evil. That’s a power that a documentary can have and fiction cannot.”
This was one of the qualities that drew him to his most recent project on the life of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. “Hunter mixed real reporting with flights of fantasy,” said Gibney, “and Bill Kennedy would probably agree that his journalism beat with the heart of a novelist. He was playful enough and whimsical enough to take his material and turn it in a different direction that only someone who played with fiction could do. In his best work it’s an extraordinary combination of journalistic reporting and fiction writing.”
The documentary shows all sides of Thompson and avoids portraying him as a martyr, who would eventually commit suicide in 2005. “No one ever knows exactly why someone commits suicide,” said Gibney, “but I think seeing it as heroic is missing the boat. He wasn’t heroic. It represented a rather long decline for Hunter, and he may have imagined his death as a way of going out with a bang and not a whimper, but I think at the end of the day a suicide is the work of a narcissist, somebody who’s thinking about himself only and not thinking about the pain and anguish that others may suffer.”
And yet Thompson was in a lot of pain. “I didn’t know him,” said Gibney, “but from all the people who spoke with me, they told me that Hunter was in both physical pain and deep mental anguish. He felt he couldn’t cut it anymore. The alcohol was probably eating away at his brain, and that’s very sad.”
The film that has still meant the most to him was the Academy Award winner “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which is an expose of American torture practices during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The film follows the plight of Dilawar, a young Afghani cab driver who is tortured and killed after being wrongly identified as a terror operative.
“Winning that Academy Award was an out of body experience,” said Gibney. “I was almost telekinetically lifted out of my chair when I heard the film announced by Tom Hanks. For the next two minutes I was in abject terror that I’d make some horrible mistake in front of the world. I had some remarks I wanted to say, and after I got through them I was just floating on air.”
Gibney admitted that film was tough to make. “It was very personal to me,” he said. “My father is in that film and I dedicated the movie to him.”
In the film Gibney’s father discusses how he was a navy interrogator during WWll in Japan. “They were not taught coersive interrogation techniques,” he said. “They didn’t waterboard anyone. They practiced rapport building techniques that were extremely effective in getting information. My father and his fellow interrogators adhered to a higher standard. It was what made America different than many other countries.”
Gibney is about to complete his most recent documentary on the Jack Abramoff scandal. “It’s going to be pretty good,” he said, but lately he’s been thinking of going in a different direction. “I’m doing a few films now about athletes, and I’m enjoying that rather than always doing movies about corruption. I’ve also got a number of fiction projects I’m working on.”
He’d love to see his films have an audience that Pirates of the Caribbean gets, “But I know how the world works,” he said. “Most of my documentaries end up on television and it’s satisfying to know that millions of people will see them. I look at it in educational terms because the more people who come out to see documentaries and see how exciting they are soon begin to see that most fiction films are far inferior.”
As a writer with numerous short stories and his second book just about to hit the bookstores, you'd think that Ira Sher, who lives in Athens, New York, just outside of Catskill, would be one of those lucky few who can make a living as a writer.
"But I can't live off my writing," he said recently in a phone interview from his home. "I'm a web developer, primarily for not-for-profit companies like small literary magazines and small literary presses. That's what I do to pay the bills, but whenever I have the time I'm writing."
Sher's newest novel "Singer" (336 pages, $24, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) tells the tale of Charlie, a traveling salesman for the Singer Sewing Company who is implicated in a series of motel fires. His friend Milton Menger joins him on the trip after Charlie's hands are badly burned. The novel, which keeps the reader guessing about who is starting these fires till the very end, will be published on March 23rd.
On Thursday, Sher will read from the book, along with fiction writer Stacey D'Erasmo, at 8 p.m. in Assembly Hall located in the Campus Center at the University at Albany's uptown campus. Earlier in the day the two will give a seminar at 4:15 in the Standish Room located in the Science Library of the uptown campus.
Although the publishing industry is clearly suffering today, Ira Sher doesn't believe it's an unhealthy thing. "This has existed in the poetry world for quite a while now," he said. "I think it's unfortunate as a writer of fiction. I wish there was a larger readership, but different media seem to come and go in the public consciousness and sometimes they just sort of go."
Sher believes that publishing will never come back to the state of where it was in the 1940's and 1950's."And that's ok," he said. "I also don't think it's going to be as depressed as it is now. When people look to narrative they traditionally turned to novels, but they don't do that anymore. Now they look to film. In the future people may begin to look more and more to video games. That's where you have the ultimate feeling of putting yourself in the place of the characters." As a writer today, Sher knows he can't rely on it as a steady pay check. "I write because it's something I enjoy doing," said Sher, "and not because I need to make money from it."
This has allowed him to write books that he wants to read. "I'm interested in things Americana," said Sher. "His first book "Gentlemen of Space" (2003) was about the space industry and the media. This book is about advertising and the Singer Sewing Machine Company. "The way I write a novel," said Sher, "I don't really know what I'm doing when I get into it, but for some reason I wanted to write something about sewing machines."
His research led him to Isaac Singer and the Singer Sewing Machine Company, a quintessentially American Corporation and an early Industrial Revolution success story. "I became fascinated by Singer," said Sher. "He was such a complicated and even monstrous individual, and the more I read about him and the company, the more emblematic he and the company became to industry and to Americana itself."
His new book chronicles a surreal road trip by the two college friends through the South in the early 1980's. "I liked the idea of setting the story in the South," said Sher. "The South has a connotation of being a backward gothic sort of place and that's the kind of atmosphere I wanted to create."
He used to go down to the South fairly often. He even did his graduate work at the University of Houston in Texas. "I have some good friends down there," said Sher, "particularly in Tennessee. When I was researching this book I went back down. I forced myself to stay in a lot of seedy motels. I have a lot of affection for those places and that part of the country."
"Singer" has a mysterious film noir feel to it with some elements of fantasy. It's a challenging book that moves backward and forward at the same time with equal touches of humor and horror. Sher admits that because of his time constraints, this book was a bit more difficult to write than his first. "I have two children six and four years of age," said Sher, "and when I was writing this book they were from one to four years old so there was a lot of chaos in the house."
He also underwent some professional chaos. "I lost a literary agent," said Sher, "gained a literary agent, lost an editor, got another editor, lost that editor, got another editor, and went to a number of publishing houses before the book was accepted." Despite these travails, Ira Sher continues to write. "The novel I'm writing now is a pretty different animal than my first two," he said. "It's a collaboration with my wife. We've given each other carte blanche to write and edit each other's work. It's been fun, and it's forcing me to think more about the structure of how to write a novel."
He's also back to writing some short fiction. "I've begun to really enjoy immersing myself into a longer work that takes some years to write," said Sher, "but with the kids around it's easier to work on shorter fiction. I'm sure I'll continue to go back and forth between novels and short stories."
He's excited to read at the Writers Institute. "The people they've brought in to read through the years is just amazing, some of my favorite authors," said Sher, "and I feel honored to now be a part of that."
Bernardine Evaristo Interview at NYS Writers Institute — 9/26/02
Evaristo: I didn’t really become a writer until I went to drama school. I trained to be an actress for three years. It was while I was at drama school that I realized that there were very few plays written by or about black people in the UK at that time. This was in the very early ‘80s. I was at a school where we were encouraged to create our own theatre. So we devised our own theatre plays. All of us, in fact, had to write scripts, in whatever way we wanted to. My plays always came out as poetry, so you could call it poetry drama if you like. It would look literally like poetry on the page, with no stage directions or anything else, and I started writing one woman shows. That was my way into literature and writing. Before then I hadn’t nurtured any desires to be a writer at all, I’d been in theatre from age twelve. I hadn’t grown up in a literary family in any way. So that was the beginning.
Questioner: What were some of those early plays like?
Evaristo: I try not to think about them, actually. I haven’t looked at them for maybe twenty years or so. They were very much about the experience of growing up black in Britain, and also looking at black history, but black history tended to be in the Caribbean. So the first two shows that I wrote were about the black British experience, but also about the Caribbean experience, even though I’m not Caribbean. They were very short. The first piece I did was a one-woman show that probably lasted about five minutes. It was built like a long poem on the page, and it was just an explosion of poetry, really. Then I started co-writing with a friend for theatre, and eventually went on to write a piece that was produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London. That was with a cast of lots of people, but again it was a poem. It was a dramatic story told through poetry.
Questioner: That initial actress desire, does that remain powerful?
Evaristo: Not at all, no. From the age of twelve I started going to a local youth theatre called Greenwich & Lewisham Young People’s Theatre, and it was around the corner from where I lived. It was really the only place my father let me go, because he thought it was local and he liked the place. He thought we were well looked after, and nice children went there. So that was really why I started going to the youth theatre, because it was the only place (I was allowed to go to). I wasn’t allowed to go to discos or anything like that, or go to my friends’ houses. So that was the beginnings of my desire to be an actress, and then I got involved in school drama, and then I trained to be an actress. Then when I left drama school I formed a theatre company with three other woman in my year, and produced plays, wrote them, acted in them in the beginning, the first two years. Then we got other people to write for the company and brought in lots of other actors and directors and the company grew, and I stopped acting. When I stopped acting I was very happy to. I think drama school kind of knocked my love of it out of me, as they tend to. They break you down to build you up and sometimes they never really build you up again. They’re a bit like mad houses, drama schools. It’s like everyone’s in therapy, and the drama teachers think they’re psychotherapists, and they’re not at all. So my love of acting had really dwindled. I still did it, but I didn’t like getting up on stage and performing in front of people, even though I did it. So when I finally stopped in 1986 I was very happy to stop. And I didn’t have to get up in front of people for another eight years, which was when my first book came out.
Questioner: It sounds, from describing the drama workshops and that drama school, like (for you) writing started out as almost collaborating. You had a co-writer for some of it. How did you move away from that into writing just poems?
Evaristo: Well what happened was that I fell out of love with theatre, as well as acting, so we finished the theatre company in 1988, but I continued to write poetry. So after writing for theatre I then started to write independent poems, which weren’t for theatre at all, they were poems written for the page. That was the gradual transition over several years. My way in was through theatre, and then it was writing independent poems, which is obviously a very solitary activity. Then I continued and then started to produce books. But I did love literature at home when I was growing up, and English was always my favorite subject, and I used to read widely, just go to the library and get books.
Questioner: This next question is kind of a process question. When you’re writing, and when you shifted from writing for drama to writing the poetry, how did your process shift, if it did, and what’s your writing day like?
Evaristo: For theatre you’re writing for the stage, and you’re writing a story, and you’re developing characters for the stage, which is a very different medium to other kinds of writing. When I was writing single poems, they were much more reflective, and they were exploring ideas in a very different way and they weren’t character based. Of course, I moved on to character based work when I started to write novels in verse. There was a long period when I was just exploring ideas through poetry. They weren’t formative in any way. In the UK, if you’re a poet who is black, and you read your work with some degree of skill, you get labeled a performance poet, which I hate. Because my background is in theatre, I know the difference between what I consider to be a performance and what I consider to be a reading. I don’t like the stage, but my work has a performative quality to it, because of my background, but I don’t like the performance.
Questioner: Can you say a little bit more about that, about the distinctions that you see between performance and reading?
Evaristo: Well, an actor is, hopefully, trained, and is communicating in every way that they can to an audience whatever part they are required to play, and it’s usually not a part that they’ve written themselves. A performance poet is somebody who gets up there and usually has a few tricks up their sleeve, and is able to deliver their work in a certain way, and often that work doesn’t actually translate very well to the page. Usually it doesn’t, whereas a good play is actually also very interesting to read on the page. Also, sometimes performance poets read on the page, they’ve actually got the book in front of them. Of course, an actor would never do that. So performance poets are not inhabiting another world when they’re giving a presentation, whereas hopefully that’s what an actor is doing. They’re trying to become something other than themselves. So that’s just something that bugs me about being labeled. People will say, “Are you giving a performance?” I’ll say, “No, I’m giving a reading.”
Questioner: I wanted to ask about The Emperor’s Babe. It’s just another world, and I wanted to ask you how you came to that subject matter and what the path of discovery was towards finding that voice, finding those characters, defining that project.
Evaristo: Well I had been interested for a long time in the black history of Britain, which goes back nearly two thousand years. It’s a fact that very few people know even in the UK. There was a legion of Moors stationed at Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England at the beginning of the third century AD. They were from North Africa, and they came with the Roman Army. That’s the first concrete piece of archeological evidence that we have that Africans were in the UK at that time. The history continues right through to today, in different ways and different forms. Certainly from the sixteenth century there has been a significant history. So this was an area that I was interested in. There is a wonderful book called Staying Power by a man called Peter Fryer, which was published in 1986, and it’s called “The History of Black People in Britain” and it begins with the Romans. I think the first sentence is something like, “There were Africans in Britain before the English came here.” Which is true. It’s a fascinating book, and it was the first book to document this history in a very comprehensive and thorough way. It was fantastic. That book was a great inspiration for me, because when I was growing up in the UK in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people would tell us to go back to where we came from, and there was always this feeling that you shouldn’t be there. It’s very different to America, where I guess people are assimilated in a different way, and the histories are very different. So people will tell you to go back to where you came from, and the popular myth was that black people only came to England in 1948, that there hadn’t been any presence before then, and that you didn’t belong. When I discovered through reading Staying Power that the history was actually much deeper, it challenges all those myths about a British mono-cultural society until 1948. The myth in Britain still persists to today. It was in the news last year that some of the more conservative members of our political parties were saying that Britain was becoming a mongrel nation, and that it was a bad thing. But it has always been a mongrel nation, because it has always been inhabited by people from other countries. Some of those people have been black, but from the sixteenth century also people have been Asian as well. So that was the general background thinking that I was working with. There are other books that I’ve read since, that have also touched on this aspect of British history.
I was asked in 1999 if I would become Writer in Residence at the Museum of London. The Museum of London is a museum dedicated to the history of London, and it is a fantastic museum, and it goes back to pre-history. It also has a huge section on the Romans. They’ve recreated Roman rooms, a living room, and a kitchen. You can actually walk through this part of the museum and try to imagine how the Romans have lived. I had studied classical civilizations at school, I studied the Romans, I studied Latin, but I’d forgotten most of it. Walking through this museum brought it all alive to me. I remembered in many ways how sophisticated the Roman society was, and how you could draw parallels between today’s society and then. In some ways they were so sophisticated they were doing things that we do now. They had central heating, for example, they had running water, and all those things went when the Romans went, and then it had to be built up again.
The Roman City was in the city of London. A lot of people don’t know what the city of London is, but it’s the financial district, which is basically the square mile where all the money is made, where billions of pounds pass through every day. It’s also on the Thames. There is also part of the old Roman walls, called the London Wall. There’s also a map of the Roman city which is transferred onto the modern city, so you can see where its perimeters were, and you can see where some of the big buildings were, like the Governor’s Palace, or the Temple of Mithras. So I then created this character. People ask me how I got an idea for this person, how she came alive. I think with me, the act of writing brings the character to life, and I knew that I wanted her to be young, that she would be married off at an early age, that she would have a very modern voice. Through that modern voice, history would be brought to life, so it wouldn’t be dull. Also we don’t know what the Romans really thought. You’re always using your imagination anyway. I also knew that she would be feisty, that she would be a strong character. Through the act of writing, the character started to take on a life of her own. I was researching the book as I was writing, which for me is the best way to do it. The research involved using the museum, talking to the historians, and lots of books. I probably had about fifty books that I worked with, and a lot of those books were children’s' books, because it was very important to get lots of historical detail. The children’s books, with the pictures, and perhaps the Latin word inscription of what something was used for was very useful for describing a day-to-day life in the Roman city.
The final part of the research was also walking around the city on a Sunday. During the week it’s just full of business people, people working in offices, all the bankers, etc. On a Sunday it’s deserted, because no body lives there, it’s just empty. So that was the best time to walk around the city and to try and imagine what the Thames was like then, when it was jungle on the other side. When it was just forest and perhaps some farmland. What it was like to have the old wooden bridge that once crossed the Thames at Cannon Street. What it was like when London was full of submerged rivers. There are probably about twenty of them that have been bricked in; some of them are dead, they’ve just been filled in and nothing’s happened to them, some of them have become sewers. But there were two rivers that were above ground during the time that she would have lived. One of them was the River Fleet, which became Fleet Street, which was where all the newspaper industry was based until very recently. And the other was the Wallbrook Stream. So I was also imagining the kind of life centered around the river, around the Thames, around the market area, around the forum, etc.
I would research different sections according to which section I was writing. I knew vaguely what the outline of the story would be. She would be married off to this rich Roman, and she would be an aspiring poetess. She would have these sassy friends, and she would have a relationship with the Emperor, Septimius Severus. But each section would be researched as I wrote it. I think what happens then is that you just take what you need. People say to me, “Oh did you read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire?” And I say, “No! Why would I want to read that?” I read a book called Daily Life in Ancient Rome. It’s fantastic, how people live their lives, what they did from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to sleep. What it was like going to see the gladiator games, what it was like traveling, what business was like, what the streets were like, etc.
Questioner: That is clear proof that every museum should have at least one poet in residence, or a couple poets in residents.
Evaristo: Yeah. They thought I was going to be walking around with a pen and paper, searching for the muse. They were a bit disappointed that they didn’t see me very often. When I first went there and I was talking to the historians about the black presence in Roman London, they were very dubious. Not because they proved otherwise, but because they just hadn’t thought about it, and so said, “Oh, that’s not possible.” And then I said, “Well, you know, people could have sailed up the Nile from northern Sudan.” The Romans conquered Egypt. They went as far as the Sudan, probably even further. The traffic was two-way. Rome was a very multi-racial city. People could have sailed up the Nile, traveled across Europe on those brilliant Roman roads, and settled in Roman London. Why not? But people had a blockage about it at the museum. They just didn’t understand. Then the book was published, and it got a lot of attention, and then about a year later they introduced a black Roman character into the museum as one of the guides, who takes people around. So I just thought it was a great achievement, because at the beginning they were very skeptical of the idea, and then obviously it challenged them, and then they kind of bought it.
Questioner: You said another thing that you were doing at the museum was doing poetry workshops, and obviously before then and since then you’ve done a lot of teaching, so I guess this is kind of a teaching question. What have your teaching experiences been like, how has being a verse novelist influenced your teaching, and how has your background influenced your teaching? I also wondered what it was like teaching in England versus teaching in America.
Evaristo: Actually I don’t really do that much teaching. I try to sort of shy away from it most of the time, but when I’m offered a really good gig, like, “Do you want to come and live in New York for three months?” then I will say yes and do it. Or, for example, at the University of East Anglia where I was this year. This year I’ve done a lot of teaching. I was at the University of East Anglia for six months as Writing Fellow for the first six months of the year. That was really because they paid me a lot of money, they gave me a flat and a cleaner, and I only had to teach two hours a week, and they said, “Write your book.” It’s a program that really supports writers. That’s why I did that. Of course, coming to New York, it’s self-evident. And then occasionally I’ll do other workshops, but I don’t actually do a lot of teaching because I know that a lot of writers can end up as teachers, which is not very well paid in the UK. I know Toni Morrison getting a small fortune for being chair of two departments in America is very different from a university professor in the UK or a schoolteacher.
Questioner: I’ll ask a question about the prose novel you mentioned. I’d love to hear how you describe what it was like to switch from verse novel to prose.
Evaristo: It was hard. My first novel in verse was called Lara, and that was actually a prose novel for about three years, and I produced 200 pages under great duress. I was also learning how to be a writer while I was writing that book. I was learning how to be disciplined and motivated, which I am now, but I wasn’t so much then. I had to grow into that. So I produced 200 pages of a novel which I hated, because the language was very plain for me; coming from poetry, it was incredibly plain, and it didn’t excite me at all. So I threw it away in the end, and I transformed the story into poetry, and that was how I came to that form with Lara. With The Emperor’s Babe it was the other way around; it was a poem that then expanded.
With Soul Tourists, which is coming out next year, I approached it as if it was poetry, so I was perfecting every line before I moved on to the next. I felt like I was writing myself into a hole. There was one stage where two or three pages were taking about two or three weeks to write, because I was thinking about how it flowed and the imagery I was using and everything, and the story wasn’t being told. The story wasn’t actually making much sense. It just wasn’t moving on. So I showed it to a friend, who was also a writer and a teaching, and he said, “You’ve got to get that story going. Don’t worry so much about the language.” Once I did that, it became easier. The thing is, you actually end up with more words when you’re writing a prose novel. Although The Emperor’s Babe consists of 250 pages, it’s poetry. I don’t know what the word count is on it, but it’s probably a third of the prose novel. In the end, with the first draft of the prose novel I produced 93,000 words, which to me is an inconceivable amount of words to have to structure and try to look at objectively and make sense of. There are simple technical things like, “he said and she said,” how people speak. Although characters speak through my novels in verse, they mainly do through monologue. There isn’t a great deal of extended dialogue. How do you sustain extended dialogue using all the basic tools of fiction writing? For a fiction writer, it is easy. Some people don’t actually put in “he saids or she saids,” some people do. Hemingway, he just says “he said, she said,” and that’s it. I was trying to find my way of describing how characters speak. I think that’s still problematic for me. Once I got into the novel it was how to use poetic language, which is what I love doing, how do infuse the language with poetry without reducing it, in the way you reduce poetry to the essence of something. Then, you know, sustaining character development and all sorts of things, it was very hard.
Questioner: I am fascinated by the process and I’m wondering what you ever looked to as any kind of a model. When I first encountered you (by e-mail), I commended you for the courage demonstrated in really launching in this form. My question is who do you read and what interests you, other literature? Also, in doing this, and doing Lara, was there anything that gave you the sense of “I can do this,” or were you really just breaking down your own senses of boundary?
Evaristo: I think I was doing both. My favorite poet is Derek Walcott, and my favorite book of his is Midsummer, which actually uses the sonnet form. Lara, if anything, is syllabic. That wasn’t really intentional, but it doesn’t use any of the traditional forms. I like the shape on the page of big blocked text. Walcott has always been an inspiration for me, for many, many years. I really do think he’s a very great poet. What he is able to do is to transform the mundane into the extraordinary through absolutely astonishing, beautiful imagery. So he has always been a model for me.
Then there are novels that I have found very inspirational and I really deeply admire the book, even though I’m not necessarily a fan of the writer, and even though the book is not necessarily experimental in any way. For example, Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro is just a fantastic book, because it’s really about one guy, a butler, and it’s all about the world as he sees it. He just presents this butler in a particular way, and we interpret him in a particular way, and it has such emotional depth to it, but it’s also so subtle. I like the idea that it’s just one character that sustains and stays the same throughout the whole of the book. More recently, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I think all of these books are probably very flawed. With The Bone People, with Famished Road, you can easily chop off the last third. It’s the first two thirds that are so stunning. You kind of have to flip through the end of the book sometimes. You could say that they are structurally imperfect, but they have so much going for them that it doesn’t really matter.
English Passengers by Matthew Kneale is another book that I really like. It was published a few years ago in the UK. It’s about these Manx seamen who sail to Australia. It’s about what the settlers did to the Aborigines in Australia, but it’s also about these Manx seamen and their journey to Australia. What I was going to say about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, it’s such a joyous book, it’s so exuberant, but it’s also incredibly flawed. There are huge sections that should have just been taken out. But I’d rather read an exuberant, flawed book, than a book that doesn’t have that special spark of light for me in it. I’ve always liked Toni Morrison. I don’t think her last two books, but certainly her early books. African-American women writers above all else showed me that I could write my own stories, set in the UK. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, most of the black fiction being published in the UK was African-American, and the publishing industry said there was no market for black British writers. They simply didn’t publish hardly anybody. For lots of the black writers writing at that time who were looking for models, African-American fiction was really the model. Then of course it’s a very different culture and a very different history, so in a sense it also became disempowering. The world was saying, “This is the black experience,” but you were saying, “Actually, I grew up in Woolage, in a mixed race family in this boring suburb in London, and my experience is completely different from theirs.” But the fact that they were writing these narratives, and some of them doing it so well, was incredibly inspirational.
Questioner: I think we should stop this. This has been wonderful.
Transcribed by Kelley Conroy
Peter Carey - Seminar 02.04.09
We had been talking earlier about some of your background, and you actually started out with an interest primarily in science. One of your teachers in a review indicated that you risked becoming a narrow- minded scientist. How did you get out of that and more into literature?
Carey: Failure is always an interesting incentive to do other things, and I was a complete failure as a scientist. But I was always very argumentative and contrary, and the headmaster, whose report you mentioned, was somebody who was very concerned about the whole notion of the two cultures—that there was a humanist culture and there was a scientific culture and the two never met. He was very concerned that I should open my mind to literature and the humanities, and I just used to enjoy arguing with him, that’s all. But I did go off to the university to study science and discovered that I didn’t understand a single word in any of the lectures. I became quite accomplished at faking my physics experiments and so on, but inevitably I failed. It was very hard to fake things. I think it’s much more hard work than doing them properly.
I got a job in an advertising agency and that was really the beginning of a truly fabulous education. See, when you think of advertising, there’s a picture you have of an advertising agency. It probably doesn’t include a chief executive officer who is a former member of the Communist party, and it probably doesn’t include all of these novelists and short story writers who are there writing often in the office, and painters who are working as art directors and so on, so I was very lucky. I had read really nothing. Shakespeare, perhaps, The Bible, perhaps. But suddenly I’m with all of these people who are reading wonderful books. Months after having failed totally in my academic career, there I was deep into Faulkner and Joyce and Beckett, and Sartre. These guys were writing, and I thought well if they can do it, I can do it, too. Of course, I had no idea what I was talking about. I had not really read enough to understand what arena I was presuming to walk out onto. If I’d really known anything I think I would have been too terrified to be a writer. But knowing nothing, I declared that I was going to do it and began and worked obsessively at it for years until finally I became one.
Faulkner: You have taught writing, and as a person then who—as you describe yourself—is self-taught, taught by the hard knocks of the public marketplace already, how do you teach writing? How do you direct people to try to become their best?
Carey: When I first came to the United States I had a little job teaching at NYU one night a week, and while I was very pleased to have it, because it would get me a green card, I did secretly think that this whole creative writing thing was some sort of a scam. Indeed, the first class I taught at NYU was a terrific class—they taught me a lot, they were very nice to me. But at the end of the class it seemed to have fulfilled everything I expected: no one got any better. Then it got a little bit better in the next class, and then I discovered that people could get considerably better, and there were things that one could do to assist them. It seemed to me that, in the way I’ve come to teach, I run the re-writing workshop. People always think this is a good idea for other people but rarely do they think it is a good idea for themselves. So that means that if you come to one of my workshops, whatever you come with in the beginning is what you’ll be stuck with for the whole semester, and you’re going to re-write it and re-write it.
I remember particularly at Columbia where I taught, I would give this little talk at the beginning, and everyone would say, yeah. what a good idea this is, and then they would one by one come to my office afterwards and explain why it didn’t apply to them. But generally by the end of the semester, people were getting really high on seeing how they could elevate themselves. When you see a group doing that it’s really wonderful. I guess that doesn’t really answer your question.
Faulkner: I guess the question always has to be begged, because nobody can explain how one teaches writing. Most people will say that writing can’t be taught, that it’s just some kind of endeavor that you engage in that creates an atmosphere where people want to do better than what they’ve done.
Carey: There are some things, some really very simple things that one can think about. For instance, I read somewhere the other day someone saying that writers are great observers. I really think this is horseshit, because writers are the most self-obsessed inward-looking people in the world. They really do not see. You look at the work in any creative writing workshop, the bulk of it is going to be all spun out of the writer and the writer’s feelings. It’s very unusual to find anyone in your workshop who can actually see anything. Certainly not people used to looking out. Now I say this not because I am any better at this but because I am one of these animals, too.
One of the things that I worked at very hard, and continue to work at is just learning to see, and learning to see a character, for instance. It’s very unusual to see anyone exhibiting that talent early in a workshop. So I drive people nuts, encouraging them to see a character, and learn how to see a space and to understand that the body is a part of dialogue. I’ve got an acting teacher who comes in to talk about physical language in the body and how the actors use the body to build a character. I’m interested in all of those things. It isn’t something that happens over night, but people start at least to think about it. They’ll produce some book where there’s no physical description of character at all. You don’t have to do this. What I would say in answer to that is, if you know how to do it, and decide not to, that’s an artistic choice. But if you don’t know how to do it, then you’re crippled by that, you don’t have that power.
Faulkner: Your ability to create character is stunning. So many of your characters live with us. You’ve written cross-gender very compellingly—although it’s easy for me to say as a man—but I want to take up the issues of how you work developing character. How do you work cross-gendered if you’re writing from the perspective of a woman? How do you play that very interesting thing that you do of an overarching narrator, almost authorial or omniscient narrator who gets into the various characters’ perspectives? That’s not easily done. Then, within the larger frame of that, anything you want to say about your rituals of writing while you’re doing this—how you work.
Carey: Well, when I began to write, my first short stories were not particularly interested in characters at all. I think I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t think it was an interesting thing to do at all—what would I have known—but I had strong feelings. The stories were always concerned with the idea of characters in some sort of almost impossible situation, trying to escape from it, and so on. The situations were often rather unrealistic and unreasonable. As I continued to work into writing novels, I still thought the same way. That is, I asked my characters to do very unreasonable things, and I spent more and more of my time wondering why someone would do such a thing. I might want something to happen because it’s a neat idea. This sounds like a recipe for the very worst fiction. Get ready for the puppets and the strings and the novelist doing all this. But for me my characters sort of begin with ideas, requirements that characters do certain things because they are symbolically important to me, something like that.
But the whole process of the book becomes answering the questions of how it would really be, who would really do that, and if someone really did that and did this other thing, which seems to be totally contradictory, why would that be? That’s mostly what I do, it seems to me. So I begin at one point, with an idea, and I come out the other end really having made these people who I believe in myself. I think for me that’s the great pleasure and magic and mystery of this whole process.
Faulkner: Can you put that in the context of talking about the character Ned Kelly.
Carey: Well Ned Kelly is different. I could put it in the context of Oscar and Lucinda, if anybody knows that one. But this is a book that ends up being this strange love story between this clergyman in 19th Century Australia, and a woman who is an heiress and an early feminist, I guess you could say. I started to write this book because I was living in the country, in a beautiful place in northern New South Wales, a lovely valley. You could come down to the valley every day and you would see the line of the trees along the river, and this little church, very, very tiny, quite utilitarian, and this fantastic escarpment of 3,000 feet. The wall at the back of the valley and the river was called the Never-Never, and the little area where I lived was called the Promised Land, and it really was sort of like that.
One day I discovered that the Bishop of Grafton, a nearby town, was going to remove this church from this landscape because it wasn’t paying its way—no one was going. I was suddenly incensed, for a second. I thought, “Why am I incensed, I’m an Atheist? What would it matter to me?” I answered myself and said, “Well, it’s in the landscape very nicely.” Then I began to think that obviously I was deriving some sort of comfort from the Christian stories of my youth. At some sort of level they were important to me, and then I reflected if I had any culture at all it was probably a Christian culture. I thought a bit more, and I thought that my books were probably riddled with Christianity in all sorts of ways. Then I thought how ironic it was that the cost of that little church going there, really, was the destruction of the aboriginal community and culture that had been in that landscape for forty or fifty thousand years, some say sixty.
So I thought, “ God, that is amazing,” and I thought of the moment when Christianity came into the landscape. Not necessarily in the bloody way that it might have, but I imagined this church as a box full of Christian stories, floating along this river through a landscape filled with aboriginal stories, because in aboriginal culture the land is of immense importance and stories are attached to the land in that way. I thought how weird and sad it was that 200 years later the Christian stories were no longer of any use, and the church was going to be taken away. And what was going to be in its place—and I knew this—was thistles, because that’s what happens in that land. If you disturb land there, thistles will grow. So that seemed to me perfectly accurate in the symbolic sense. Then I started to think, “Well, is there a novel in this?”
There was a wonderful community uproar in this, about the community buying the church and the older settlers not wanting the new settlers to buy the church and going to the Bishop of Grafton and offering more money than the other people in the community because they didn’t want people to be having black masses or whatever they thought. My story was more interested in these other things, and I wondered might somebody ever do such a thing? I thought, “Well maybe for a bet,” and then I remembered what Pascal had said about belief in God, being a bet, so that if you believe in God and there is a God in Heaven, you will have done well, and if there isn’t then you haven’t really lost so much by having lived a good life. So I thought that was interesting.
I have a very good friend who is an architect, and I said to him, “Didn’t the Victorians have this prefabricated technology for churches?” He said, “Yes, but it was for glass houses. Why?” I told him I wanted to have a reason to get this church on this barge. He said, “Well, why don’t you have a glass church?” At that moment I knew I had a novel, because I had some obsessive fool who was going to be obsessed with glass, and I always like obsessives. The symbolic language is great, glass is wonderful because it’s pure and so incorruptible in a sense, but also when it’s broken it cuts and hurts, which seemed to me to be symbolically also correct. Still, I didn’t have any characters. I thought, well, there has to be the glass person, and the God person. So I developed the character who becomes Oscar, and then—I didn’t know it was going to be a love story. Little by little I had to ask myself why anyone would do these things. I built the story, and I built the characters.
Faulkner: Talking about that aboriginal land connection, there’s a moment where Oscar apologizes to Lucinda, when he’s drawn her into a game of cards and it starts storming. He apologizes, and you use a line saying, “but if one could have that sort of primitive understanding of things.” There’s that whole background element that I think is unique to your perspective that you can layer over all kinds of Victorian things, but you have also this dynamic energy that’s behind it that’s truly aboriginal.
Question: What made you choose to write about Ned Kelly, and how much of the history did you make up on your own?
Carey: Ned Kelly is scary in all sorts of ways. In Australia it is a great story, so if you’re going to start messing with it you’re going to start upsetting a lot of people, for a start. In a way I think it’s kind of conservative what I wanted to do with the history aspect. I think this is our country’s great story, and I didn’t feel it had been told as well as it might be. I really just wanted to follow the story. If you look at the story of Ned Kelly there are a whole lot of things that are generally agreed to have happened. In a way you sort of walk through the story, almost like the Stations of the Cross. So we know those things. What I thought was really interesting was how little we had imagined about the emotional lives of these people, and how often we were used to saying things without asking ourselves what they could possibly have meant.
In the story there’s a constable, Fitzpatrick [Alexander F], a sleazy, unpleasant, dishonorable sort of man, who is a key figure of the story. But it’s said in the history that Fitzpatrick was a friend of Ned Kelly’s, and it’s been said over and over again. But no one seems to have ever thought about how he might have been a friend, or what was Ned Kelly doing in any sort of friendship with this person who would cause you so much trouble and so on. So there are all these things that can be imagined. There is the relationship between the mother and the son seems to be suggested by history but not imagined emotionally. So the history is like if you imagine a great dark plain, and a series of very narrow spotlights. In each of these spotlights what you see is one of these very well known events. What that leaves you with as an artist is all this black space to deal with.
What I was interested in doing was respecting generally what is known, and inventing totally everything that happens out of the dark, that nobody knows anything about, and still having my characters walk through the right door at the right time as they did in history, hitting the chalk mark of where they’re meant to be. But often what results is quite different than what anyone else expected, and I didn’t want those reasons to be mischievous or frivolous. I wanted them to be real issues, things that I thought people hadn’t imagined. So it presents an extraordinary degree of difficulty. You’ve got to deal with things that are known, but at the same time it would be very boring to me if I wasn’t imagining it very wildly. That’s sort of a four-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
Question: How were you influenced for the story of Jack Maggs?
Carey: In Dickens’ Great Expectations there’s the convict, Magwitch, who has been exiled to Australia and who we discover in the end is the unexpected source of Pip’s wealth. Of course this is a great book, but on the other hand Magwitch, as it occurs to me at a certain point, is in a sense my ancestor. What Magwitch is doing is very interesting from an Australian point of view because Magwitch has been exported to Australia—which is, of course, how Australia started, as a penal colony, exclusively as a penal colony. After he’s done his time, he’s become rich. He’s a free man in Australia. But what does he want to do? He wants to go back to London where he will be hanged if he is found, and sit by the fire having cakes and ale with this little gentleman he’s created at long distance.
In other words, he’s paid for Pip’s education. He’s made him into an English gentleman. So what the convict has done is create a member of the class that did everything to him in the first place, and he wants to go and sit with him at the risk of being hanged. So I thought this, what you could call “false consciousness” was very Australian in all sorts of ways, and was a part of what we lived with and live with still to a certain degree. So I imagined. I didn’t call my character Magwitch, I called him Jack Maggs, but I gave him a similar objective, and he has a different conclusion. As I went along the way reading about it I started to read quite a bit about Dickens himself and Dickens’ life, and I rather like the notion of inventing the writer who would write the book based on this character, a writer who, like Dickens himself, was interested in mesmerism and hypnotism. Who would steal and burgle this man’s stories and put them into his books? I guess it might get very complicated, and it is, too.
Question: Do you think Oscar and Lucinda presents certain prejudices about the Victorian time period and the upper class at that time?
Carey: No it’s just prejudiced in limitations in my imagination when I come to think about those particular situations and those people. All of those people are just holding onto respectability, and often do behave badly. There’s no safety net in Victorian England. That doesn’t particularly disturb me, one way or the other, and hadn’t even occurred to me to tell you the truth.
Question: Why did you have Lucinda not be the mother of his baby?
Carey: I think the thing is that so many people who have read the book say to me, “I love the book Mr. Carey, but I have to tell you that when I got to the end of it I threw it across the room.” So I have this notion of a book that’s actually traveled thousands of miles driven by the rage of readers. I made a decision at the very beginning of the book, when I was first thinking about it, and I no longer even know quite why I made that decision, but I did. My first notes about the book were of an image of this person. I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t know who his character was, what I was going to feel, but the image was coming up the river like a salmon to spawn. So this is my first thought of Oscar and the beginning of the family, and that gets very locked into the book. You have this and you stick with this and you live with this some more. If that’s going to happen, Lucinda can’t be there, and so that’s got to go the way it’s got to go. Sometimes I think that for all the work that one does about being careful, about the symbolic logic of the piece and why you want to do this and why you want to do that, sometimes things get sewn into a book just because you had the idea and it felt right to you.
Question: I wanted to tell you that I was traveling in farm country a while back and I found a used copy of your book, Oscar and Lucinda, in a shop. I bought it and read it, and after I read it, it sort of got passed around. But to discover there was an Outback restaurant on the way home made me think of the book again and I just thought you’d like to know that you were thought of in that rural setting.
Carey: It is always very strange and very wonderful for a writer to think of places that his or her books are read, and to get a letter from someone saying they were reading my book in Barcelona, or India. It’s just a very nice feeling.
Question: What contemporary writers do you read?
Carey: I mostly hate everybody, every writer understands that. Who do I read? Don Delillo, Tobias Wolff who I really love so much. Lovely, lucid sentences. At the moment I’m preparing for a trip to Japan so I am reading a whole lot of nonfiction about Japan, but also reading Mishima [Yukio], for instance, which I find exhilarating. I’ve unfortunately become—and I think this often does go with the territory—a bad and impatient reader. For someone who is drawn to literature because I love reading so much I’ve become one of those people who has to be taught something immediately, or have something they can use, otherwise they’re going to put the book down. This is an odd place to end up in and not really to be recommended. There’s an Australian writer who is hardly known here, is a wonderful writer, a woman called Helen Garner and I really recommend her work to you.
Faulkner: Do you know Richard Flanigan, in Tasmania? I have not read his book but it has been reviewed in the past few weeks.
Carey: Just arrived, yeah. I haven’t read it yet but it’s on my bedside table. I was reading in the Australian press that this thing that Michiko Kakutani gave this fantastic review to was hammered beyond belief in the Australian press, so. I hope she was right.
Faulkner: There’s no accounting for taste. Do you find there is a difference between how you’re received by an Australian audience and how you’re received virtually by the rest of the English speaking world?
Carey: Well there are two different things. One is how readers read you, and then there’s what happens in the politics of literature. So certainly I always think that Australians are my first readers, and the notion that there should be international literature is really something that only makes sense in a marketing department. I think mostly literature does grow out of a particular soil, and when I write I think firstly about Australians reading it and then I hope other people like it, too. But then it’ll mean that certain books, like Jack Maggs, or the Kelly book, will have sort of a resonance for Australians that they will not have for Americans or English people. So there will be a big difference, and by the time you get to promote your German language edition of Jack Maggs, you realize that you’re talking about something that you can’t even communicate in an interview.
So, yes, there are huge differences. Then, of course, there is the business of politics. In Australia we have a thing—when I explain it to you you’ll be familiar with it—called the “tall puppy syndrome.” When a puppy gets a bit above himself, they have to be locked down, the tallest puppy has to be cut. We’re pretty good at that. The Irish are pretty good at it too, but we’re a bit supercharged in that respect, so if you’re an Australian writer and you’re doing very well you’re going to get chopped. And then you get elevated again, and then you’ll get chopped, and that’s how it goes. We don’t have success stories, we have failure stories. That’s what we like, so.
Faulkner: What about an author like Patrick White [Nobel Prize winner]? Or was it just that he was accepted by the rest of the world and not by Australia?
Carey: Well, these things always have stories in the end. So, the story that he put around was that he was never well-received in Australia and he had to get recognition abroad. It may be true. Certainly there were some very vicious and stupid reviews of his books at the time, but there were a lot of good ones, too. I don’t know really what the truth is, I think it’s probably not as bad as he suggested.
Question: How did you get started on the language of Ned Kelly, and what was the process for developing his character?
Carey: There are a whole lot of parts to it. The first part is that Ned Kelly himself wrote a long letter in his defense—which was rather typical naiveté. He left it behind at the town where he robbed the bank, believing it would be distributed and printed. He was hugely popular among those people, so I guess it’s not as naïve as it sounds, but certainly it was never printed. The language for me really begins with his letter, and it was me thinking that this is my character’s DNA. On the basis of this letter you can have this man stand up and walk around because it’s so particular, and it contains his feelings about his Irishness, Irish history, about class. It’s ultimately quite mad at the end, but it’s also very funny, and because it was dictated, I think, there are very few commas and full stops, so you do get this fantastic rush of prose.
My notion at the very beginning was that I would start with the beginning of the Jerilderie Letter and just keep on going. That’s called the Jerilderie Letter in Australian history. I did indeed start doing that and I did about a hundred pages, and it was so like Ned that it was unreadable, because although his letter is very interesting it is also very damn hard to read. You really do have to sort of pick it apart and sort of figure it out. The other reason it wasn’t working was that his letter was public rhetoric, and in fact a novel can’t work like that. It’s got to be more confessional. So that’s where I invented the daughter, and it would be addressed to a better future, so that’s part of the business of making the letter work.
I went to a small school in rural Victoria, the same state, the bottom right hand of Australia, and I was there in the very early fifties, started in the late forties. There were kids at that school who still spoke a little bit—in terms of the grammar—like the character in this book. They’d say, “I’d come into the room and there he were,” for instance. So by the time I worked out this voice, based on Ned’s voice and somewhat what I learned from childhood, there was a sense I had that I wasn’t making it up. I never felt that it was something that had to be invented. In fact when somebody asked me how it felt to be writing in dialect, I was momentarily shocked. “Dialect? This is how we spoke.”
The other thing you find about the language in this, which is, I think, rather true, is that a lot of the language of people like this will get its usage from police reports. So when Ned writes and he’s talking about his father meeting his mother, he says, “and then or soon thereafter he met my mother.” So there’s lots of that sort of thing. Anyway I wasn’t thinking about that, I just know that so I write like that. Then there’s the difficulty with the punctuation and what do you want to do about that. After my first attempt to write like Ned and finding it unreadable, I then decided for most of the book, I’d use commas, and I used them in a rough way, more like I would use a full stop, say. At the very end I thought this would have been such a cop out, and it hadn’t been what I wanted to do, so when I did a search and destroy on the computer, I searched for every comma and every full stop, and every other bit of punctuation and just got rid of them. Then I sat down and re-wrote the book so it was more like what you’ll be reading now. The one thing I wanted was for it to be clear. The dazzlingly good thing about this is that what I discovered, when you start to take out commas, which are normally very useful things, it reveals all sorts of muddiness in the writing. A lack of clarity. The writing had to be tightened up considerably because of that. So I worked then with the punctuation I have now, for quite a while, and people generally seem to like it. It was readable.
Faulkner: Like you had to get rid of throwback clauses, any kind of compound sentences with antecedents would get very complicated.
Question: Why did you use euphemisms and dashes instead of curse words in the book?
Carey: All euphemisms are sort of a cheat, in a way. For those of you who don’t know, he’s writing the book to his daughter, and he wants to tell her the truth. On the other hand, he is a Victorian, even if he doesn’t want to pass on curse words to his daughter. So he gets all of these euphemistic strategies, the obvious ones being dash-dash-dash . . . . I don’t know how difficult it would be in the dialogue if all the time I used “adjectivel,” and so I loved giving it to him—although it’s a cheat, in a sense, because it’s unlikely that somebody of his particular education would’ve used that word in that particular way. But on the other hand it has the precedent within Australian literature of the people of this type. What I really liked about it, of course, is that it gives the texture of this sentence a more invented texture.
Question: How long did it actually take you to write the book?
Carey: Always seems to take three years, I don’t know why that is. The best bit of the research was actually right near the end and one of the things that has to be really right in this book, of course, is the landscape, and all the stuff about the animals and the horses, and so on. I had to make sure that was totally right. So when I’d got it almost done, I went on a trip to Australia with two friends and spent a week. It was really just clicking everything into place. Some of it was just talking to farmers and people who rode horses and that sort of stuff. But I think we traveled around in our four-wheel drive for about that week, and I think there was hardly a moment when I wasn’t writing in my notebook. The result was that it was just lovely to go through. I had so many mistakes and inaccuracies of all sorts, and it was just wonderful to be able to think about a particular color or all those little things that in the end make a book work.
Question: When you’re not in the four-wheel and at your desk, what is that rhythm like?
Carey: I’m really just hoping that somebody will call me so I can talk, checking my email, all the things you shouldn’t do. I work in very intense bursts. I can hardly ever be interrupted. I’ve got two kids and I never had any trouble with them coming in the room. I just think I’ve got a really short attention span. I work all morning until I’ve done four, five, six pages set with a decent margin and an inch-and-a-half spacing—I don’t even know how many words that is—and I just accept that I’m going to write that many times—that many of those chapters will be revised 20 or 30 times and that’s what I do. Of course, as we were saying earlier, it’s so much easier, so much more fun to revise. It’s sort of hell just getting it down the first time. Really difficult.
Faulkner: Do you work with music, do you prefer silent space, do you walk, get out, get away from the work, do you walk around your room? I’m always curious about those sorts of things.
Carey: Sometimes I take a little nap, but that’s really only when things are really going badly. Just have a little nap. I had three days of naps a month ago, but I came out of it, it’s fine.
Question: If Ned Kelly were around today, what would you ask him?
Carey: I think I’d keep well away from Ned Kelly frankly. Somebody once asked me, “If Ned Kelly could read this what would he think?” I know what he’d say, he’d say, “This isn’t me,” and then he’d be quite likely to be upset because it wasn’t. I know that in this area where the family still lives, there are a number of people who are rather upset with me, not least of which because I suggested that Ned’s mother prostituted herself. So I have to stay away from there for a while, too.
Question: How do you know when a story or a novel is finished? How do you decide when you should stop revising?
Carey: It used to be so much clearer to me. At the age of 40, somebody would ask me, “Well how do you know when it’s done?” I’d say, “I just know, it’s done!” Now I would say to you, it’s never done. I know that I could keep on going forever, almost. But you reach a point where you give it to the editor, and if the editor’s a smart one—and I’ve got a very smart one—we’ll do a month’s worth of work on that. Other people will say, “I think it’s done.” Whenever I read from this book, there are things I keep wanting to alter. The thing I normally read from has a sentence in there with three people with “M” as the first initials in their names. Two of them are from history, but why did I put the third one there? So it always offends me when I read that. I think everyone will be noticing this. Why didn’t I pick another name? I think you never finish, and I think it does help to understand that because it does make you work harder and harder to get it really right.
Question: What’s the best way to research information for a novel?
Carey: One of the things—talking about writers being colossally self-absorbed people—is if we’re working on something and we think we can get some information on it, we’re asking people about things all the time. That’s a wonderful way to get information. Libraries yes, Internet, yes. Going to find people and interviewing them, all that sort of stuff. I think I normally begin work knowing very little about what I’m going to have to know a lot about in the end. For instance in Oscar and Lucinda I had to know about the Victorian church. I began writing it not knowing a damn thing about the Victorian church.
For instance, it was clear that if Oscar was going to be an Anglican he had to go to Oxford, and I was really so worried about having to invent Oxford University because I’d not been there, I didn’t know it. I knew the book was going to be reviewed in London, everyone’s going to know more about any of this than I would. So I was trying to find a way not to have to do this thing. But in the end I had to face it, and do it, and to do that I read a lot, I went there. I went there with my English editor and we came to this Oxford College. We went bounding up the stairs and knocked on this door, and a startled student opened the door, and my editor said, “I’m Roland McCrum from the BBC. We want to look at your room.” So the student sat down and we went in and made notes about his room. So I guess you do all sorts of things.
Question: Do you believe that your Ned Kelly is close to the real person, and how can you construct a story about a real icon?
Carey: I don’t have a lot of experience. Ned Kelly is the only time I’ve really taken on somebody who’s known in that particular way, and I guess I just made myself so confidant that I knew exactly who he was. I think I began thinking I knew exactly who he was, and so, in a way it was easier, because you have a lot of his actions laid out for you. But taking on history has not so much to do with the character but the story itself is big and messy, and constructing the story was more the difficulty. I really believe this is him. I’m the wrong person to ask.
Question: How did you come to the conclusion about Ned’s mother prostituting herself, and the relationship between him and his mother?
Carey: Obviously I have invented every single word of dialogue almost, and a great number of the actions—but not all. One of the things that seemed to me, from reading the history that’s available, first is that you have a character who is a very feisty wild woman. If you’ve read the book, the Quinns are her brothers, so you know she’s a Quinn. But the thing that would seem to me about this relationship with the mother is that we know Ned’s father dies when Ned is very young—he’s 11 or 12. So the mother and the older boy form this survival unit. Ned’s the one who will give up going to school, and life is very hard indeed, so they go through a lot together. We also know that she had a number of boyfriends. Probably not Harry Power, a real character, but I brought him in there. Anyway, she had a lot of boyfriends.
We know exactly how big the hut was, that it didn’t have any walls, it had curtains. So you figure that if she’s bringing men into the hut, and that boy is there—if he’s a hero he won’t be at all jealous, but on the other hand if he’s a boy, he’ll probably be very jealous of these men who in a sense usurped his role in the household. That’s sort of conjecture but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Then we also know that when the boys became outlaws, Mrs. Kelly was arrested and put in prison and separated from her child, her newborn child, a particularly cruel thing, not normal in those times. Normally the baby would go to jail with its mother—she would’ve been breast-feeding. It’s extremely punitive.
We know that the boys were doing anything to try to get her out of prison. At the very beginning they would talk of giving themselves up in return for the mother. It was generally agreed that he was very attached to his mother, although nobody’s ever quite suggested the relationship that I’m building in the book, not such an intense relationship. Then we find him signing his letters at the end when he’s going slowly nuts. He’s signing his letters, “For I am a widow’s son outlawed, and must be obeyed.” Now, I’m inventing a huge amount, and I’ve got a little bit of evidence, and it seemed to me that there is a relationship with his mother. His feelings towards his mother, and his wish not to abandon her, really makes a huge amount of sense out of the whole story. In the end when they’re planning to derail a train and take hostages presumably I can imagine that they thought they would get her out that way. Here’s some stuff made up, and a little bit of evidence.
Faulkner: This is an appropriate time to say that this has been a great conversation, to say thank you very much.
Carey: Thank you.
Transcribed by Joseph Pezzula.
Douglas Glover: Welcome to “The Book Show.” I’m your host, Douglas Glover, of the New York State Writers Institute, which is located at the University of Albany as a part of the State University of New York system. My guest today is Australian novelist and short-story writer Peter Carey. Carey is wildman, an obsessive allegorist, a kind of literary Crocodile Dundee, with an emphasis on the literary. He has forged a career of successive attempts to probe the mystery of the Australian soul in fiction. He started out in a Sydney ad agency writing Borgesian tales of the counterculture bazaar, full of hyperbolic grotesquerie and wicked humor, and these came out in his first book, The Fat Man in History. He wrote another novel, Bliss, which was made into a movie. Then in 1986, he published Illywhacker, an improbable novelistic history of the island continent written from the point of view of a 139-year-old liar living in vast exotic pet store owned by the Japanese. Two years later, he won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda, a pseudo-Victorian love story about two Aussie gambling addicts and a cathedral built of glass. Now Carey lives in New York, and has just written a new novel. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, a sort of neo-Orwellian post-colonial fantasy set in an indeterminate future in an imaginary country called Efica, narrated by a club-footed midget on trial for impersonating a mouse. It is Frantz Fanon meets Samuel Beckett and Donald Duck. It is a bizarre, comic, nauseating, and deeply melancholy meditation about the Australia of the human heart. Peter Carey, welcome to “The Book Show.”
Peter Carey: Thank you very much, what a welcome.
Douglas Glover: This is a wonderful book, and it’s very much of a piece with your other books as I’ve read them. It’s a unique mixture of allegory, the surreal, and a kind of ideal thought of Australia in the background that’s going on, and it fascinates me how you manage to put that group of things together to make a literary career.
Peter Carey: It is an odd way to make a living, isn’t it? Particularly for such an anxious personality, to sit down and realize you’re going to make a living doing this.
Douglas Glover: And you’re not exactly writing mainstream books, though you do write great stories.
Peter Carey: I always start off in a most abstract way. When I’ve finished a book, I’m normally most proud of the characters, and yet when I begin, I’m only thinking of an idea, some sort of schematic ideal, like a cartoonist might begin to think. This book, I begin to think about these characters visiting this country like America but I didn’t want to be like America; I wanted it to be like an idea of America. I imagined a character not at all like Tristan, but arriving at some time and being mugged and having no money and having to survive in a mouse suit. I’ve been to Disneyland and I’ve seen Mickey and Minnie running around, and then I thought of Ron and Nancy Reagan. Then I sort of started to reinvent America and these characters might walk its streets, but have more of a connection to the past. The novel started with this sort of abstract idea, and it was only when I got into the second draft that I thought the character might need a monetary reason to get into the mouse suit, but also a psychological reason, and it’s from that that Tristan began.
Douglas Glover: The whole novel—Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda—works toward this final image; Tristan is this ugly, mute, diseased infant who grows up into someone not much better, physically anyway, and he achieves a kind of apotheosis and has sex with a beautiful socialite, in a mouse costume. The mouse costume is not just a suit he puts on; it’s part of an old robot, and so there are wires and things inside that cut him, so it’s an image of this ugly person putting on a suit and becoming a mythic figure, and as he becomes a mythic figure, he is being cut to pieces. But it took successive drafts for you to come to that.
Peter Carey: One of the great parts of writing a novel is that it’s a long journey and you have a chance to learn many lessons, and then you grapple between what you want to have happen, and how it would really be, and so I’m dealing with the practical issues. It’s the will to invent versus what the reality would be, if that makes sense.
Douglas Glover: It makes a lot of sense. Now you’ve made imaginary countries that exist in the future, Efica and Vorstand. The latter is a sort of Boer America; it’s modeled on South Africa.
Peter Carey: Well the language does that. Because I decided to invent the capital city, and first I researched plans for buildings that could have been built in New York City, and then I went back to the Dutch language and began to imagine this Dutch colonial history, and so then in inventing the language, I go to Dutch, and then I got to Afrikaans, because it’s an older form of Dutch. That then helps to make Vorstand absolutely not the United States, and it creates some resonance with South Africa, and I hope ultimately makes it its own imagined place, because my whole emotional engine as an Australian is now turning over. But what I’m intent on doing is making something new.
Douglas Glover: You invented a language, a folklore--you write footnotes about books that have never been written. The mouse costume is a representation of a folkloric or mythic figure in Vorstand history. The book open with two epigraphs, both involving a duck, one being a folksong lyric you made up…. It sounds like you were having fun writing this.
Peter Carey: I did have fun. One of the two epigraphs tries to make a connection between entertainment and education, or doing good, because Vorstand has this huge entertainment culture, and I wanted to make that culture educative, to link it back to Christianity and to doing good.
Douglas Glover: These people are certainly post-Christian.
Peter Carey: It’s at a very decadent stage, yes.
Douglas Glover: You’ve said that your perennial subject is Australia. This book is not set in Australia. There are these strange colonial and post-colonial message loops that go back and forth in a country that is or has been colonized and a country that is a metropolis, its father or mother country. Frantz Fanon made certain colonial psychologies clear or relative to Africa, but I think it’s very different for Americans, Brits, Australians, or Canadians to see the similar sorts of psychologies and corruptions of the soul have taken place in those countries as well, and that’s partly what you’re trying to get at here.
Peter Carey: Yeah, I confess that I read Frantz Fanon in about 1968, and I can’t remember too much of it. I read The Wretched of the Earth.
Douglas Glover: Is the sort of psychology you’re developing here--someone with multiple fathers, a mother who is a liberal actress who’s come to make a point and fostered a culture by starting a theater even though she doesn’t make any money, and Tristan’s father is an actor--is this sort of psychology common currency in Australia?
Peter Carey: That notion? I think it’s a prickly sort of an issue. Another issue is convictism, of which we all say we’re proud, but which we’re really in deep denial of. In Australia, many people adopt a 19th century upper-middle class British snobbishness towards Americans. One of the great political tragedies in Australia was the dismissal of the government in 1975, and we had a situation where we had an elected government with a crisis on its hands. The American government connived on all sorts of levels to let that happen, and people in Australia will still refer to it as a coup. No one dares look at the fact that our dear friend did this to us. One of the emotional engines driving this book is that incident.
Douglas Glover: And the book is taken over with a kind of intelligence agency that is influencing the elections. One of the agents actually kills Tristan’s mother when she’s about to win one of the elections. So that really does reflect in distant way, Australian history. What kind of flack do you get for having moved to New York?
Peter Carey: We don’t like people to leave, and that is especially when those people are successful. I think that when people leave, we feel it means they’ve become “too good” for us, and it does have to do with our colonial history, and with our convict past. One is not easily forgiven, but my friends, in seeking to excuse me, said the move would help me see my own country more clearly. I thought that was too easy to say. Indeed that has happened--the more bizarre my own country becomes, and that is good for me, as a novelist with my obsessions. I could ask for nothing more. The reason I came here was certain motives, about ten of them. My wife spent seven years living in Toronto, and really wanted to get back to living in North America. I got a job at NYU when I was here, sort of accidentally. I’ve become very well known in Australia, and all of this is exactly what I’ve wanted. I personally thought it would be difficult to have people smile at me and say hi on the street, which I think is every writer’s dream. I discovered I’d rather live without it. That’s why I came to New York--to live a more normal life.
Douglas Glover: You’re the first person who I’ve ever heard say that about New York. Do you think of yourself now as an expatriate?
Peter Carey: That always seems melodramatic, self-important even. I’ve started to get a little homesick, so I suppose so. Those issues preoccupy me. I was in Washington last night, and someone asked me the question why I left. There’s a degree of unsettledness about the whole issue. I’m very happy to be here.
Douglas Glover: It’s very much on the mind of the novel.
Peter Carey: Well, with the character Bill, it’s very much an issue.
Douglas Glover: He’s an actor who goes to Vorstand and becomes a great success.
Peter Carey: Well, he’s perceived at home to be a great success, and when he arrives in Vorstand, he realizes he’s not as big of a success, and his career is finished. He’s passionate, but he’s also an opportunist.
Douglas Glover: I’m afraid I have to stop us now, but it was wonderful talking to you.
Peter Carey: Thanks so much.
Douglas Glover: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is a treat—let me tell you that. It is disturbing; it is wildly original; it is terribly sad. It is a political book not about parties, but about the place where nation, myth, and history intersect with the personal. It exaggerates and ironizes the human scene, our common comedy of errors, with chilling even-handedness, i.e. no one escapes, neither the colonized nor the colonizer. Peter Carey’s oddly crippled characters bubble with a perverse liveliness; his book hurtles along on a picaresque roller-coaster that is nothing less than entertaining. This is Douglas Glover saying so long from “The Book Show.”
Tom Smith: Everybody knows what poetry is, I think. And everybody knows what a performance is. What is performance poetry? What is its discrete history and what are its philosophical underpinnings?
Anne Waldman: I think that it goes way, way back to the oral tradition, to a kind of tribal situation, when there was a real place for the poet in the society as a kind of articulator of the collective mind, or energy or spirit or emotion. You have a long tradition there. Certainly, with the surrealists, there was a tremendous amount of activity, for example in Cafe Voltaire, where [Richard] Hülsenbeck would accompany his poems with a whip, the crack of a whip. People accompanied their works in various ways, to punctuate the rhythm and so on: in costume, with props, other voices. The Greek choral ode was originally danced and sung. All the traditional forms we have, actually, come from oral history: the sonnet, the little song, the sestina.
Smith: In the last twenty-five years, what separates performance poetry from the tradition of lyric poetry, meditative poetry, is that it can and should be read aloud?
Waldman: Well, I think that in the last twenty years, in this culture, in this country, there has been a resurgence of the poet present with their work. How that actually began—I think in terms of my understanding, having to do with growing up around New York—was by being exposed to all of it in small coffee houses, in living rooms, in salons. In other countries, for example in Russia, you have thousands of people coming out for a reading. I think that the poet has been seen in other cultures as a kind of collective energy, but also articulating [that energy] for you; in the sense that the Greek drama did, or in the sense of our culture of sports figures and sporting events. It is some kind of ritual enactment or purge. They’re up there doing it tor you, essentially. I remember hearing Robert Lowell. There was something so remarkably fragile, articulate, rhythmic, lyrical—all those things. But you wouldn’t call Robert Lowell a performance poet. Something about the man, actually naked, up there with the work, not a lot of adornment, no back-up band or chorus, or sets—very non-theatrical in some way. Yet the words were able to manifest all kinds of images and sounds and reactions. For me, it was the “bare” poet that was most influential. I have always had a little trouble with the term “performance poet” because it implies rehearsal, it implies memorization, it implies that you’ve been working it out in front of your mirror, which is not the case at all.
Smith: It is an arbitrary term. However, it has its uses because it directs us to a certain thing. Maybe what you’re saying is that the odd thing is that over several centuries we separated poetry from theatre or music. It became a very private kind of thing. John Stuart Mill, in an essay on Percy Bysshe said that Romantic poetry was not meant to be heard, but overheard.
Waldman: And yet when I read a poem in a book, I hear it; in my body, in my ear, it’s a performance of some kind, which is actually coming alive in a very visceral sense for me as a private reader. I wouldn’t want to give up that experience either.
Smith: Is there a way that you, as a poet, somewhere in your mind, separate poetry as representation of an action and poetry as a poem as an act itself.
Waldman: Yes. I would say so and the work I choose to read aloud for the most part is that kind of enacted situation where it’s almost a re-creation of the ritual. The poem is the experience. So when I read it, I’m present with that original experience. Then there are other poems that have that representational quality, where you’re recalling or you’re imitating something that actually occurred. So, yes, I think that there is a distinction.
Smith: Like the tradition of dramatic monologue, they are theatrical pieces. Yet at the same time, they’re kind of meditative poems. It’s interesting when one reads them, at what point you hear them, as an action in themselves.
Waldman: Well there’s a long tradition of that—the duet, which can be found, for example, in some of Yeats’s poems.
Smith: When you compose a poem for the printed page and one for the performance, what’s the difference, if any in the process?
Waldman: I think that the performance-oriented work seems to come more orally. It often starts with a kind of musical idea, a musical phrase. A lot of the oral poetry is chant, hangs on that one phrase, that heartbeat, that repetition.
Smith: Where did you begin as a poet? I know that at one point you were an actress, you still are a performer, but how did you see yourself when you were in your early twenties?
Waldman: It started quite early. I grew up on McDougal Street, my father was a teacher, but also a writer, and he had been a journalist. My mother wrote poetry herself and translated from Greek and from French. They had a large library. There was a lot of encouragement. My father was also a speed reading expert. He wrote the book Rapid Reading Made Simple. I was one of his guinea pigs; I was an avid reader and a fast reader. At one point I wanted to be a novelist, but I had more of an inclination toward the poetry. So it began quite young. Actually in one book, I published a couple of things that I had written at the age of eight. I think that finally in my twenties, I felt I was going to accept [being a poet], just take it on. Going to Bennington was very inspiring and also working with real practicing writers and seeing that kind of discipline; that was something that you learned right away, that it was a matter of a daily practice and attention, and you were also an active reader as a writer.
Smith: Now you have experimented and used many different forms, but my favorite one [in your poetry] is the chant. The chant has a kind of cumulative force and a spell. Where does that come from in your work?
Waldman: I’m not sure. There’s some natural propensity towards it. Certainly in various cultures, it’s at the base of the literature; it’s usually an anonymous tradition. Certainly in Native American poetry and so on, which I have looked at and studied. They resonate with what I’ve been doing. When I started Fast Speaking Woman, I was traveling in the South and it was in the air. A friend of mine brought me the Maria Sabina text and recording, which is a very different kind of rhythm.
Smith: Tell us a little bit about the Shamanistic tradition.
Waldman: Well she [Maria Sabina] was a leader in the Mazatec community and she would guide, principally, the young women at the age of puberty into a sort of rite of passage—through an ingestion of a psychedelic mushroom. That would then enter the women into a kind of collective vision, a kind of rite of passage. That in a way, in terms of a larger worldview, with or without the drug, was right in synch with something I was feeling and I had a yearning for, having a community voice as a poet. It was very interesting, how after I published that poem I was receiving in the mail, other people’s versions.
Smith: You have done a lot for poets and poetry over the years. Here is what Allen Ginsberg says about you. This is about Anne Waldman, as Poet/Orator: “She is a power, an executive of vast poetry projects and mind schools in America, a rhythmic pioneer on the road of loud sound that came from Homer, Sappho, at least a future epic space mouth. She’s a cultivated Buddhist meditator, international, subtle, an activist of tender brain vibration.” What is the Naropa Institute, which you helped found with Allen Ginsberg, and what is the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics?
Waldman: Well, in 1974, Allen and I were invited out to Boulder, along with the poet Diane DiPrima, and this school was taking shape. It was founded by Tibetan Buddhist students. The idea was a contemplative backdrop to education, to counter the usual competitive situation, to focus on the arts and very innovative psycho-therapy, which combines contemplative and traditional Buddhist ideas, a strong dance therapy program, and we were invited to develop the poetics wing of it. That first summer we decided to name it the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Allen and I were roommates at the time, once we were given this assignment we stayed up all night thinking of all these chairs we were going to invent—the Emily Dickinson Chair of Silent Scribbling, and so on. I thought that maybe we should call it the Gertrude Stein School; I thought that would really be somewhat outrageous. But Kerouac was a writer, of both prose and poetry, which we could both agree on. Kerouac somewhat represented the young poets and I thought that the situation honored him and also his early interest in Buddhism and certainly the Mexico City Blues, that idea of spontaneous mind, and so on. It began just as a summer program and then in 1976, I moved out there to start it sort of year-round. Then I was back and forth a lot to the St. Mark’s Poetry project where I had worked for over a decade. I felt that it would be interesting to bring some of that energy out to Boulder. We started very successfully with the summer program. Writers were coming from all over and we started developing a strong adjunct faculty, which of course included William Burroughs and many, many others, such as John Ashbery and some younger writers and performers. We developed that performance end as well and some of the collaborational work that goes along with poets and dancers, poets and artists. This last summer we had a Sanskrit poet, teaching Sanskrit poetics. I’m starting to see, because of all of this, departments of scholarship and the more creative end of it as well. We’re designing a poetics journal. About three years ago, we became accredited and I launched the MFA program, which is a one and a half to two year program.
Smith: One of the things that I find very fetching and appealing is the term, “Disembodied Poetics.” Do you want to briefly gloss that for us?
Waldman: We had a very peripatetic faculty. Kerouac himself had died. We were honoring the traditions
Smith: But it’s strategically removed from its NY and San Francisco rhythm.
Waldman: Exactly. I feel it’s coming out of that, but yet, it’s got its own force and energy. And you have poets of my generation and younger who are wonderful hybrids. These labels, though they are somewhat handy, are not really accurate in terms of the differences and the multiplicity of work. These students are extraordinary. They’re coming from all over.
Smith: You’re too young to be a Beat Poet—
Waldman: Yes, but the openness of that time when Burroughs first came back to America. I was going to some of his lectures at City College and then they were real teachers for me, personally.
Smith: In the last decade or so, what we have been calling performance poetry, do you think it has changed the poetry of so-called open forums and where is it going?
Waldman: I’m traveling around a lot; I’m meeting a lot of younger writers. There’s a lot going on, it’s hard to say exactly where it is going. Poetry feels very alive and well and healthy. There’s a tremendous amount of experimentation.
Question: When did you start writing?
Waldman: Pretty early on, it seemed like a great lifestyle, the life of a writer. I was trying to explain to my son the other day that you don’t just get born and then you go to school and then you get married. You get born and you write a poem. I grew up on McDougal Street in the west village [NYC] and my family was very encouraging. My mother was a translator and somewhat Bohemian, and my father was a frustrated novelist. I liked the smell of that paper and the typewriter ribbon, sort of accoutrements of the trade. Somehow they seemed simple, modest. So there was, I think, an early attraction, and it took a while to feel that one could do this in the world. It seemed to me to be a sort of marginal reality in many ways.
I have always been involved in communities of writers. That’s really where a lot of energy has gone, like running the St. Mark’s project and the program at Naropa, which was founded in ’74. I actually had a psychedelic vision in 1965 at the Charles Olson reading in Berkeley. It was kind of a landmark moment in my life. I hitchhiked out to Berkeley and watched this extraordinary man give this kind of Shamanic performance, where he enacted the event of being the poet. As he says somewhere, the poet speaking and the poet reading the poem is the same thing. He was sort of coming apart in front of our eyes, and I took this vow then that I would somehow commit my life to helping to sponsor these weird people. Get up on stage and come apart, take you through the dark night of the soul. It seemed like a whole cycle of reality at the time. So at the age of 20, I think, I had made a really firm commitment and then I had this vision that everybody in the world was sort of working together, through these skillful means of language and poetry. I just had to get on with the work.
Question: How would you characterize the state of poetry today? Would you say that we are in a golden age?
Waldman: I feel that it is very healthy. I have been traveling a lot in Eastern Europe. Everywhere we go there are poets coming out of the woodwork, or people who have been readers of poetry, inspired by poetry. You don’t have to be just writing it, but as a path, as a practice of understanding writing, teaching and so on. I think that it is quite healthy. I’m very inspired by what we are doing at Naropa. We now have an accredited MFA program, which is unusual and unique, I think, compared to other programs. It’s a complete focus on writing. My entire faculty are creative writers themselves. We’re doing outreach, where we are working very much in the community: workshops in prisons, working with homeless. There’s a way of using this as skillful means in the world in terms of communication. I think that it has to be taken out of the Ivory Tower. There are poetry readings in every town in some cities abroad. There’s a lot of very strong work, a lot of young work and underdeveloped work. People have to read to write, it can’t just suddenly manifest, I don’t think.
Question: Do you see yourself as a feminist or are you not into that dichotomy? A lot of your work has female imagery in it.
Waldman: Sometimes the dichotomy works, I think, in a personal way. It can be a certain way of describing an experience. I’m not a strict feminist; I don’t think that I pass the test. It is certainly in my work. I have read a lot of material that speaks to my own experience. I have trouble with any kind of codification, where language gets solidified. I think that people are constantly breaking through that, and re-forging and creating new terms. I think of Cixous’s idea of desire, of “writing the body.” But I took it to this more humorous place.
Question: How did you survive motherhood?
Waldman: It’s not over yet. My son is only ten. It’s a battle. I feel like I’m fighting the dark ages. Football—that’s the hardest one. Baseball cards, the malls of Boulder, Colorado—this mania. It’s materialist shopping malls, it’s the end of the world in some sense. I was living in Bali and I just took my son there into this other culture. I feel that’s what I need to do for him; get him out of America. They actually have no word for art in Bali; your life is art. It’s quite extraordinary. At the time [of motherhood], I thought that I would never write again. I’d never have time or any sort of gap. Then he became an inspiration, a sort of voice in the poems.
Question: Do you have a set time for writing, or do you write when you are inspired, when it comes to you?
Waldman: I think that it is both. I carry a journal around all the time. Sometimes, I’ll set myself a form; a twenty-page poem with ten line verses and these strange predetermined structures. Then I’ll just stay with it until it manifests. I enjoy working with form, when things are not happening in other ways. You know, take the challenge, at say, a sestina to sort of keep in shape. I set myself these goals. Generally, right now, I’m trying to do a little everyday. Usually it’s late at night. It’s good to have a set time. I tell my students two hours a day. If you aren’t writing, just that you are thinking about writing, or you’re reading, or you’re determining that as writing time. Then whatever comes up, just keep it and look at it later. But really make that kind of commitment. I try to do that, and it gets easier as the weeks go on. Then you can’t live without it!
Question: I was wondering what your relation to Buddhism is, because it appears a lot in your writing.
Waldman: I got involved at a fairly early age and took serious vows in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. So I have been a student for a number of years. The Naropa Institute and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics is based in contemplative [Buddhist] practice. There are many teachers who come through—both Tibetan and Zen teachers, Native American teachers. The idea is to honor the spiritual traditions. You don’t have to be necessarily Buddhist to study there, but there is that basis.
Question: As a poet, do you find yourself deciphering a lot of newspaper double-speak, a lot of things that are going on in the political arena?
Waldman: Yes, and I have taken on especially this list of weapons that are going into this long work. We live near Rocky Flats, the plutonium plant about ten miles from Boulder, Colorado, where they make the deadly triggers for the warheads. There’s a strong possibility that that will be opening again soon, after a lot of scandals and mishaps and changing of hands and sleight of hands. I have a blues song that lists a lot
Question: Do you have any advice for people that write, who have not yet shared their writing? How would you start?
Waldman: First, get together with a few friends who also are writing. Start in a small way and invite others into that. It’s not necessarily a critiquing situation but it gets your voice out there, your text out there. And from that you can grow and develop. There’s something about that first step. I think the best thing to do is to seek out like-minded people who want to do the same sort of thing.